A Tale of Two Cities: How DC and San Francisco Are Handling Citywide 311

Without a doubt, I am a data whore. I love raw data. I love APIs. I love finding interesting ways to mashup data. With the new found craze in government for openness, led in no small part from the Federal level and work endorsed by the Obama Administration to work pushed forward by Sunlight Labs, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and others, I’d expect the openness to trickle down to state and local levels. And it is.

On one level, you have Washington, DC (where I live) who has been making impressive strides through OCTO (Office of the Chief Technology Officer) with the assistance of iStrategyLabs and the Apps for Democracy competition.

Washington, DC is in production of it’s Open 311 API, a RESTful data API that they are careful to note is in development. (We will be building a PHP library around this API shortly, so keep an eye for that announcement over at Emmense.com).

In using a REST API, DC is opening up the service sector of the DC City government for developers of all sorts to tap into and build applications around. All to meet the needs of city residents.

San Francisco, on the other hand, just announced that they are utilizing Twitter to allow residents to submit issues directly from their favorite web application. Simply by following @sf311 (and being refollowed), citizens are able to DM requests.

Personally, I am partial to DC’s approach but I applaud both cities for pushing the boundaries to bring city government closer to the people. Frankly, I’m a little concerned about San Francisco utilizing Twitter for this purpose, for the same reason that I am hesitant about any business making their business model about Twitter. Twitter has not proved, at least in my mind, that they have the business savvy to keep their service from going out of business. Likewise, they have not proved their technical ability to make a fail-less system. It’s a game of Russian roulette to base a business (or government service) around this application. San Francisco probably has failover plans and this is just another approach though, so arguably it’s not a significant risk.

However, the solution to the 311 problem becomes infinitely more scalable when utilizing a pure API and allowing the pure submission and retrieval of data. And the use of an API keeps responsibility in-house. Twitter is not paid for by taxpayer money, so there is no expectation of quality control. A government owned and maintained API, on the other hand, provides safeguards that make sense.

All that aside, it is clear that both DC and San Francisco recognize that the accessibility of governments to their citizens is an utmost important goal in 2009. They are taking laudable steps to break down the barriers and solve real problems with modern technologies. For that, I can find no fault.

The Xbox Experience: A Great Improvement That Still Lacks

Microsoft is clearly getting hipper with their offerings. The company that has been notoriously committed to offline products, like their Windows operating System and productivity suite, Microsoft Office, to the detriment of their online offerings seems to definitely be moving into the internet space more. They are, in fact, trying to own the online space now which is a significant internal company departure from the past.

As recently as yesterday, speculation was that the ill-branded Live! Search could be rebranded in a much more internet friendly way. Kumo.com anyone? Their IM client… well, no one uses it.

xbox-360-logoOf course, they have jumped headfirst into the incubation industry by launching BizSpark, which seeks to provide promising young companies with technical resources, such as their server offerings, and human and business resources to help these investment companies, mostly web based startups, become viable.

Naturally, one of the odd players in the Microsoft ecosystem has been the Xbox 360 platform. It is a killer gaming platform (I am an avid Xbox Gamer) and their online gameplay over Xbox Live is second to none. It has always lacked any kind of cohesion for an online service though. Especially in 2008, where Facebook and Twitter rule the day and it is rare to find someone who is not on some kind of social networking platform.

So a few months ago, when word leaked out about a complete overhaul to the Xbox Live experience, there were many of us who were excited about a modernization with significant incorporation of social networking elements. With the launch the other day, some of that has been delivered.

The Xbox Experience, as it’s called, is a significantly streamlined dashboard making it extremely easy to access common items, such as the Xbox Marketplace. Incorporation of online video giant, also dabbling in the social networking space, Netflix makes the Experience worlds better. It is possible to watch Netflix “Instant Play” queue items directly via your Xbox Dashboard. Sweet, if the video quality was better. Putting this aside, the mashup is a great step in making the Xbox an entertainment hub.

However, significant issues remain. A “big bling” element to the new Xbox Experience, is the new avatars. Going through a wizard the first time I logged in, reminded me a bit of creating your Tiger Woods 2008 character. Though this is fine in creating a personalized environment, I find no purpose for an avatar except to snap a proverbial photo and making that photo your “avatar photo”. I would much rather designate an actual graphic or picture as my avatar, in much of the same way most social networks allow you to.

The storyline falls apart more when you login to manage your Xbox Live account from the web and discover they have not incorporated any further way of getting at your data. Microsoft would do well to develop robust APIs that would allow players to get an XML or JSON feed of achievements, gamerscores, last/currently played games as well as other social network elements.

Why not provide a much more efficient “friends” method that would allow players to have wish lists, friend challenges, friend groups, as well as a unique element I call “tip sharing”. Tip sharing would be a forum element where a friend could share intel about a game (say Fallout 3) and I could “download” that tip into my Xbox Live user account. When I reach the Farrugut West Metro station in Fallout 3 and my friend has discovered something, the game could feed me that intel from a friend.

Another social element would be the concept of a “lifeline” where, if I’m stuck during a game, I could get immediate assistance (in-game or otherwise) from my friends through screen sharing, instant message (kill Live! Messenger and use OpenAIM, please) or other “helper” element.

Let’s make it really social and make it possible for gamers to find other gamers in their area and schedule times together (if you have to, use a modified, online, lite version of Sharepoint or Exchange Server to make this happen).

Of course, a natural tie together, via OpenSocial, with other social networks, possible use of OAuth for data access and login, status messaging and comment, and other “social elements” would really flesh the Xbox Experience as useful in 2008.

What are your thoughts on the Xbox Experience?

GNIP Spells a Whole New World for Data APIs

Allow me to get nerdy.

It has been a long time since I got downright giddy about something developer-oriented. Lots of new APIs are coming out all the time and I usually take a once over look at them to determine if there is something cool there. A lot of time there are cool things and I promise myself to come back and explore the possibilities later. I rarely do.

However, with the announcement of GNIP today, I finally feel like my incessant mulling of API frameworks might be coming to an end.

Let me back up. A few weeks ago, I was fiddling with a bunch of APIs trying to create some mashup I was working on. I sent Keith a direct message pitching a “crazy idea”. An API for all APIs. One API to rule them all. His response, “A meta API?”

That made sense and made me laugh because I know how much he hates the word “meta”.

My idea quickly dissipated as I realized it was probably pretty futile to create an API for all these varied services that all had different data formats and types and my need for it wasn’t all that important at the time anyway.

I could have also used the concept when I was working on Mokonji, the project that now sits dead because Trackur beat me to the punch.

The idea with GNIP, bringing this story full circle, is that it is a meta-API. It sits in front of “data producers” (Digg, Flickr, Disqus) and provides a standardized API for “data consumers” (Plaxo, MyBlogLog, even Lijit!) to exchange data.

Since this is still so very early, there are bound to be other data producers and consumers. Also notable is that the only data format is XML. XMPP and JSON are missing. That will likely change over time too.

Data Producers not yet involved that should be:

And a few Data Consumers that are also missing: